Kids are fascinated with the big metal machines that take us places. They spend so much of their time playing with mini-versions of cars and boats and trains and planes that the chance to experience the real thing is an almost guaranteed good time. You don't have to travel far to give your kids a chance to wrap their minds around and get their hands on a variety of vehicles in the region. Some even offer rides.
Railroads Big and Small
Let's face it: Our rail passenger industry is in tough shape, with declining ridership, more than occasional derailments and competition from bargain airlines. Yet for kids it's hard to match the choo-choo for basic coolness. Maybe there'll be a massive renovation of Amtrak's crumbling infrastructure starting in 2020, when today's 6-year-olds, weaned on "Thomas the Tank Engine," begin rising to leadership roles in U.S. government and industry. Until then, youngsters can play on the railroad in various ways. They can visit such RR museums as Baltimore's B&O Railroad Museum and a smaller one in Ellicott City. They can take a ride on miniature trains at a half-dozen area parks. They can wander the soaring spaces of Union Station. Even sitting in the front car of a Metro train is a bit of a thrill for them.
Miniature Train Rides
On a miniature trade ride, where's the best place to sit? At the very back, you see the whole thing snaking out in front of you, its engine taking curves long before you get there. At the very front, you can watch how the iron horse (iron pony?) is tamed by the engineer (though "engineer" might be too grandiose a word for the gangly teenager who's usually at the helm). Lots of families debate this as children board. But whichever seat your child prefers, the following parks run tiny trains during warmer months. Rides last from 10 to 15 minutes, and the fare is about a dollar. Lines can be long on summer weekends.
You can't ride on model trains, but you can see entire towns re-created down to the smallest detail. The best places to see model train sets are the B&O Railroad Museum and the Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station Museum, but other hobbyists open their doors from time to time. Call to confirm details; admission is free unless otherwise noted.
Racing Cars and Such
Models are fine, but the real thing is better or certainly louder. You can see auto racing at the tracks below. Drag races are truly fast (they're over in about 8 seconds), but you can spend the time between races wandering the pits, where owners tinker. Most drag strips even allow you to race the family car. (That'll impress the kids at the bus stop.) Speedways or oval tracks are the closest thing we have to NASCAR racing: big American metal going around and around in circles. The only area European-style road-racing course in the region is Summit Point in West Virginia.
Admission to area tracks ranges from $7 to $15, depending on the level of racing. Children under 12 pay less and are often free. At some tracks a "pit pass" is extra.
Words to the wise: Tracks are closed in winter months. In bad weather, call to see if races have been canceled. At a racetrack it can be well, it is loud. If engine whine and tire squeal bother you, bring earplugs.
Fighting Fire With ...
Water, water ... well, not quite everywhere, but in enough places so that getting your feet wet (figuratively, we hope) is a relatively easy prospect. Some boats noted here do nothing more than float, pretty much stuck in one place while you scramble over them. Others do move. Take your pick.
The following vessels range from a sedate mule-drawn barge to a neck-snapping speedboat. Call first, even if reservations aren't necessary, since bad weather may scuttle your plans.
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